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Tenganan Village - Karangasem - East Bali

This is an original pre-Hindu Balinese settlement, long a stronghold of native traditions, about halfway between Padangbai and Amlapura (67-km northeast of Denpasar). At the end of an asphalt country road up a narrow valley, Tenganan is far removed from the Javano-Balinese regions of Bali.

Like Trunyan on Lake Batur to the northwest, this small village is inhabited by the Bali Aga, aboriginal Balinese who settled the island long before the influx of immigrants from the decaying 16th-century Majapahit Empire. It might appear to be a stage-managed tourist site but is actually a living, breathing village-the home of farmers, artists, and craftspeople.

The lowland people of Tenganan have preserved their culture and way of life through the conviction they're descended from gods. They practice a religion based on tenets dating from the kingdom of Bedulu, established before the Hindus arrived.

Tenganan origins can be traced back to the holy text Usana Bali, which states they must tend their consecrated land to honor the royal descendants of their creator, Batara Indra. Though Tenganan is today Hindu, it is also unmistakably Polynesian.

Except for such visual blights as the row of green power poles down the center of the village's unique pebbled avenues, Tenganan is a living museum in which people live and work frozen in a 17th-century lifestyle, practicing their own architecture, kinship system, religion, dance, and music. Signs of the 20th century are a public telephone just inside the entrance, TV antennas on bamboo poles piercing the thatch rooftops, the motorcycles parked outside the compounds, and the occasional tinny sound of a cassette recorder or radio.

Inhabited by a sort of 'royalty' of proud villagers, Tenganan is one of the most conservative Bali Aga villages on the island, and perhaps the only one with a completely communal society. All village property and large tracts of the surrounding land belong to the whole community in a sort of 'village republic.'

Most of these rich ricelands (over 1,000 hectares) are leased to and worked by sharecroppers from other villages, who receive half the harvest. This leaves Tenganans free for such artistic pursuits as weaving, dancing, music, and ritual fighting. Tenganan villagers are among the wealthiest on Bali.

About 106 families with a total of 49 children live in Tenganan-a significant drop from the estimated 700 at the turn of the century. A council of married people decides the legal, economic, and ritual affairs of the village. The village customary law prohibits divorce or polygamy, and until recently only those who married within the village were allowed to remain within its walls, others were banished to a section east of the village called Banjar Pande.

By the 1980s, this custom resulted in Tenganan achieving less than zero population growth, a result of inbreeding. Mandates from the gods were recently reinterpreted, allowing villagers who marry outside the clan to stay, provided the spouse undergoes a mock cremation ritual from which he or she is brought back as a Tenganan.

Tenganan is an architectural wonder, one of the few places on Bali with a pre-Hindu South Seas pagan feel. Here you'll see ancient courtyard walls, pavilion temples, magnificent community halls, and old high-based long houses, all built in a powerful, very masculine, crude 'aristocratic' style. These extraordinary structures come straight from the island's casteless prehistory.

Note the number of homes with dog doors built into the stone facade. Scholars theorize Tenganan's classical linear village layout, walled mountain-style courtyard dwellings, and ceremonial long houses suggest the village was once located farther up the valley. Village legends of landslides and sudden evacuations lend credence to this theory.

Long houses are actually the equivalent of southern Bali's 'bale banjar' where meetings, weddings, and banquets take place and where the village 'gamelan' is stored. Long-houses are still widespread in a number of isolated, animist, agricultural societies on Kalimantan and Sumatra.

The most striking feature of this 700-year-old walled village is its layout, totally different from any other community on Bali. Rectangular in shape (250-by-500 meters, about six hectares or 15 acres), Tenganan shares many characteristics with primitive villages on Nias and Sumba.

Today there are three broad parallel avenues running along the same axis as Gunung Agung and the sea, lined with walled living compounds of nearly identical floor plans. The eastern street, which tourists rarely visit, is accessed through the lower parking lot.

There are also three streets running east to west. The wide, stone-paved north-south streets, which serve as village commons, rise uphill in tiers so the rain flows down, providing drainage. Each level is connected by steep cobbled ramps. The only entrance to this fortress-like village is through four tall gates placed at each of the cardinal points (prior to Indonesian independence, Tenganan was surrounded by a high wall). The main entrance is the south, home to the highest concentration of souvenir stalls.

Villagers live in brick and mortar long houses. Handsome ceremonial pavilions and giant grain storehouses run down the center of the widest avenue. There are also open kitchens and bale, administration buildings, the 'kulkul', an elementary school, 'wantilan', and a playing field, all arranged in a long neat row. Pigs wander peacefully and water buffalo graze on the lawns.

At the south end is the long 'bale agung', site of all important village events and discussions. Here you may see half the men in the village watching TV. In back of the village is a black 'atap'-roofed temple, Pura Jero, set under banyan trees. Well to the north of the village, also under a huge 'waringin' tree, is 'pura puseh' (temple of origins). Here also is the village cemetery. Don't miss Tenganan Tukad, a smaller version of Tenganan to the east. Amazing ceremonies.

Village Life
Much of it revolves around souvenir selling. The people have completely adapted to the tourist economy. Nowadays tables selling palm leaf books a re set up at intervals the whole length of the main street. Nearly every home seems to hold a display room or bale. The young men are cool dudes who speak American- or British-accented English while feigning an air of boyish innocence, cunning traders and bargainers, the people are friendly yet dignified. You're invited to take tea and photos of women weaving wide temple belts on rhythmical backstrap looms.

The walled village's quiet somnolent air is accentuated by the lack of vehicular traffic except for the occasional motorcycle. There are no accommodations for tourists. Morning is proclaimed at Tenganan by 21 low drumbeats at around 0600 and curfew is loudly announced at 2000 when all visitors must leave.

Most rituals take place early in the morning. A famous celebration in May or June each year is the three-day Udaba Sambah. At this time one of the area's five primitive Ferris wheels is erected. The unmarried girls of the village sit on chairs and the giant wooden contraption is revolved by foot power for hours on end. For the past several years, however, the ceremony has not been held because of a shortage of young marriageable girls.

The high point of Udaba Sambah is the killing of a black water buffalo, preceded by a ritual trance fight (makara-kare) between young men who attack each other with prickly pandanus leaf whips. These theatrical contests can last for three days and incorporate more than 100 participants. The duels, similar to the 'peresean' whip fights of Lombok, are staged to the intense martial sounds of 'kare' music. Blood is usually drawn because the fighters are only protected by plaited bamboo shields. During the festival the streets of Tenganan throng with people from all over Bali.

'Kawin pandan' is also practiced here once yearly: a young man throws a flower over a wall and must marry whoever catches it. 'Rejang' is a formal and sedate ritual offering dance, originally performed by virgin boys and girls. In this quiet, hypnotic dance, girls in three rows wear magnificent costumes and colorful sashes. Their hair adorned with blossoms of hammered gold. It's accompanied by the slow, haunting 'gamelan' music found only in Bali Aga villages.

'Kamben Gringsing' Tenganan is the only place in all of Indonesia that produces double-ikat textiles. In this difficult traditional technique, both the warp and weft threads are dyed before the fabric is woven. Reddish, dark brown, blue-black, and tan backgrounds, once dyed in human blood, is used to highlight intricate whitish and yellow designs of 'wayang' puppet figures, rosettes, lines, and checks. Great care is taken to ensure that even tension is applied throughout so the patterns will match exactly.

Lontar Books
Lontar are palm leafs on which intricate drawings have been etched, usually depicting scenes from the Hindu epics. I Wayang Muditadnana makes about one five-page lontar book per month. On holy days or upon request he can be heard reading passages from his books. I Made Pasek is another lontar carver in the village.

He, too, spends about a month inscribing one palm-leaf book with miniature Ramayana scenes and stories. A third artist, I Nyoman Widiana sells seven-page wordbooks and also sells lesser quality lontar made by his students. Most cheap versions sold on the street are of low quality. The finer, antique, superbly etched works can fetch higher price.

Ata Baskets
Ata baskets are a good buy, so sturdy they're said to last 100 years. They're made from a vine collected from the hills behind Tenganan. Basketry has been developed into a fine art on Lombok too, but baskets there are made from rattan.

Ata is much stronger than rattan, as it's water, heat, and insect resistant. They come in all shapes and sizes; those with black woven designs are more difficult to make and cost more. An average-size basket takes two to three weeks to make, worked on by both men and women when it's too hot or rainy to work the fields.

A friendly place to purchase these traditional baskets, woven right on the premises by the whole family, is I Nengah Kedep's on the main street. These are the finest ata baskets, 'bowls,' boxes, plaques, and even backpacks on the island; take time to linger and you'll learn a lot I Nengah may even, eventually, bargain a bit. If you're really serious about buying, ask to see the baskets in the back room. Another reasonably priced shop for woven goods is Mertha Shop run by I Nyoman Setiawan.

Getting There and Away
Tenganan is three km off the main road between Klungkung and Amlapura, just before Candidasa, and 17-km southwest of Amlapura. Catch a 'bemo' from Klungkung or Padangbai to the Tenganan turnoff, then mount the back of one of the 15 or so waiting 'ojek' motorcycles and travel up through a tunnel of banana trees and bamboo.

You can also stay in Candidasa-no accommodations in Tenganan-then early in the morning walk from the main road up to Tenganan. The turnoff is on the west side of the village, then it's about another five kilometers up the hill through thick forests-a great walk. Or hitch a minibus, 'oplet', truck, or anything else headed your way. Another option is to rent a bicycle in Candidasa; it's a nice, though uphill, ride.

The road ends at the southern entrance gate to Tenganan where you'll be asked for a donation. Foodstalls, inside and out, sell cold drinks and snacks. It's best not to arrive between 1100 and 1400 when the small village and parking lot are deluged with tourist.

Another way to reach this traditional village is to follow the road on top of the hill behind Candidasa in a northerly direction; a two-and-a-half-hour walk. Stop for boiled water and fruit at Ni Komang Rerot's house along the way. If you walk into the hills beyond Tenganan, the road turns to the northeast. Check out the panorama from the 'pura' in Gumang, the highest point overlooking a deep valley. In Tenganan, ask about the footpath to Tirtagangga.

Geret Pandan or Pandan War Tradition